Divisive. Controversial. Contentious.
All words Lars Von Trier is pretty familiar with by now when it comes to reviews of his films…and not without reason, to be fair. The director is a purveyor of the uncomfortable and the uncanny whether he’s looking at the end of the world (Melancholia) or something a little more intimate, like a small-town factory worker who just wants to dance (Dancer in the Dark).
But his latest offerings, Nymphomaniac Volumes I and II seem to have incited even more wrath than usual from both the critics and the viewing public. Seriously, if you check out even a small handful of the user reviews on the Internet Movie Database you’ll be bombarded with angry comments entitled ‘Storytelling traded for porn’ and ‘The truth hurts: Nymphomaniac is too awful to watch!’
And that’s harsh, man. Harsh.
But the question is, are they right? Is the film just pornography masquerading as art, looking to shock for no apparent reason or is there something more to it than that? Something more than instinct and repulsion at its admittedly graphic sexual scenes?
Well, we watched both movies back to back to answer this question so you don’t have to.
And in our humble opinion, we have to admit… there’s no denying that there is indeed a lot to dislike about the film.
• For one thing the pacing is glacial… which will always turn off mainstream audience members in droves. Movies these days tend to be anarchic and constructed in quickfire shots that grab the attention, ripping it from the audience. In comparison Nymphomaniac, both volumes is meditative and measured, which could easily become confused with boring and tedious. It’s a fine line, and a subjective thing to call. So it came as no surprise then that mass walkouts would have been a regular feature in Nymphomaniacs limited screenings.
• The framing device for the chapters in both films (where Joe uses fixtures/fittings in the room as a prompt for the memories she’s sharing) also feels like a cheap kind of storytelling trick; something you’d find in a ScreenWriting 101 class. Obvious, overbearing and almost amateurish, we were actually surprised that Von Trier chose to use something quite so blatant to drive the narrative forward after all his moviemaking experience so on that score, it was more than a little disappointing to witness.
• And then we come to the dialogue…and jeez the dialogue. Stilted, unrealistic and decidedly cringe worthy at times, the dialogue may in fact be the worst thing about the movies overall. And believe us, this is not a reflection on the talents of the individuals speaking- both Gainsbourg and Skarsgard are after all quality actors with extensive back catalogues to prove this. But the long, dispassionate monologues they have to say in stark close-up are often quite painful to listen to and definitely don’t help in making the characters likeable or even accessible much of the time. The fault for that once again can only be laid at Von Trier’s feet since he wrote the script alone and as much as we hate to say it, it’s a difficult thing to get over when you’re spending four hours of screentime with these overly-talkative folks.
Hmmm…It’s not looking good is it?
As we said, there is a lot to moan about with the films, there’s no getting around it and we’re all about being honest here at on the qt.
But that’s not to say there aren’t worthwhile things to find buried in amongst the chaos.
• And the first thing to say in its favour is that we completely disagree with the idea that sexual experience (in all its graphic and uncomfortable forms) cannot be discussed intellectually. All the people online claiming that anything that shows explicit sex acts automatically becomes pornography, designed only for the purpose of titillation just smacks of a childish sense of righteousness. It’s balls, really. Childish reactionary prudishness. While some of the scenes are definitely uncomfortable to watch and one or two will really make you question whether you’re watching performance or real-life action, it’s that very instinct to turn away that makes the film so interesting to watch. After all, it forces you to ask why these things repulse us so much. Why our instinct is to look away from the screen when we’ve all got a sexual drive, a sexual past. Nymphomaniac may be excessive in parts but it brings to light a kind of hypocrisy that’s been hidden for way too long.
• Secondly, the cast is an oddity and a joy. You could just ignore all the sex and play ‘which famous actor is going to pop up now ‘if you really wanted to! Featuring turns from Shia Labeouf (with an, um, ‘interesting’ accent), Christian Slater as Joe’s father, Jamie Bell as a S&M guru and in a barn-storming performance Uma Thurman as the slighted wife) the movies are a casting smorgasbord of weirdness and this totally adds an astonishing and attention grabbing quality to a film so many claim to be staid or boring. Seriously, where else would you come across a movie that so consistently makes you go, ‘Wait, is that…?’ And where the answer is yes!
• Alongside this, the films also offer unexpected and kind of enthralling perspectives on controversial issues like nymphomania, paedophilia and sado-masochism. A lot of people won’t like the empathy and legitimacy Gainsbourg’s Joe gives to the individuals she meets who feel certain supposedly ‘unacceptable’ desires, that’s for sure. In fact some will be incensed by it, by the way they’re shown to taint every aspect of the person’s life despite their best efforts. Many will be disgusted on principle. But like we said, perhaps its time society re-examined its need to reject certain people for desires we simply don’t understand. Maybe it’s the Liberal inside us clawing its way out but we genuinely believe that anything that discusses issues like these in the mainstream arena without being shouted down gets a thumbs up from us.
• And finally, the fact that this is a movie that places its focus on two rarely seen types of character- one a sexually unconventional woman and the other an asexual man more than makes it worth a watch. Yes the dialogue might be affected at times, and for sure, there’s an element of pretentiousness to more than one of the scenes but for sheer commitment to pushing the boundaries of cinema, for sticking a finger up to the reactionary middle class audiences and for having the guts to turn his lens on characters who live on the supposed ‘fringes of society’ we say bravo Mr Von Trier. And though we might be the only ones, we’re one hundred per cent glad he’s out there making the cinematic world a more challenging place.
So there you have it.
Our take on the disgusting, pornographic ‘adult documentary from Hell!’
Sure it’s provocative… but it’s also imaginative.
And yes it’s explicit… but its kind of intellectual too.
And if you’re someone who appreciates a new perspective, then this film may well be for you.
Check it out and let us know!!